The power of the district attorney general is great and he is invested with authority to pursue criminal cases at his discretion. In Hamilton County, DA Neal Pinkston prosecutes people under the freight, shipping, hauling, trucking and transportation law who are not involved in freight, shipping, hauling, trucking or transportation.
He performs these prosecutions entirely at his own discretion. He files cases despite having been put under transportation administrative notice, a public filing that details the disabilities and limits of Tenn. Code Ann. § Title 55, motor and other vehicles, the state law for common and private carriers.
Evidently, Mr. Pinkston and his assistantk DAs are exercising a discretion defended by the state supreme court. The court’s ruling in the Oliver Springs case in 1999 highlights these powers, though it admits they are “subject only to certain constitutional restraints.”
It is these restraints that are the basis of calls for bottom-up reform of police power practices statewide, starting with the notice project in Chattanooga, Red Bank, East Ridge and Hamilton County.
‘Entirely within the discretion’
The Tennessee supreme court describes these powers in two cases.
[T]here are no statutory criteria governing the exercise of the prosecutorial discretion traditionally vested in the officer in determining whether, when, and against whom to institute criminal proceedings. Indeed, it has been often recognized that “prosecutorial discretion in the charging process is very broad.” So long as the prosecutor has probable cause to believe that the accused committed an offense, the decision whether to prosecute, and what charge to bring before a grand jury generally rests entirely within the discretion of the prosecution. State v. Superior Oil, Inc., 875 S.W.2d 658, 660 (Tenn. 1994). [Emphasis added]
In another case, the court says his powers are, if misused, “frightening.”
[The District Attorney General] is answerable to no superior and has virtually unbridled discretion in determining whether to prosecute and for what offense. No court may interfere with [the] discretion to prosecute, and in the formulation of this decision, he or she is answerable to no one. In a very real sense this is the most powerful office in Tennessee today. Its responsibilities are awesome; the potential for abuse is frightening. Dearborne v. State, 575 S.W.2d 259, 262 (Tenn. 1978). [Emphasis added]
In Superior Oil, the court overturned part of the Water Quality Control Act of 1977 because it require the DA to ask a state commission for permission to launch a prosecution.
In Ramsey v. Town of Oliver Springs, 998 S.W.2d 207 (Tenn.1999), the court upholds the overturning of a practice in a town that trod on the authority of the DA. The town covers three counties — Anderson, Roane and Morgan counties. The judges say the town cannot prosecute cases in the Roane County city court if an offense occurs in Anderson or Morgan county.
A DA has a duty to “prosecute in the courts of the district all violations of the state criminal statutes and perform all prosecutorial functions attendant thereto, including prosecuting cases in a municipal court where the municipality provides sufficient personnel to the district attorney general for that purpose.” Tenn. Code Ann. § 8-7-103(1) Duties. He is a constitutional officer subject to election.